The announcement came just one week after the union made the surprising move to send out the cards to gauge interest, a move made to seize the momentum created by two-plus years of advocacy that pushed the low pay and challenging working conditions of the minors into a brighter spotlight than ever before. That minor leaguers would unionize never seemed imminent. That the MLBPA would serve as the organizing force behind their unionization was never obvious.
But as of Tuesday morning, their combined efforts had hurtled minor leaguers one step closer to unionization.
“Minor league Players have made it unmistakably clear they want the MLBPA to represent them and are ready to begin collective bargaining in order to positively affect the upcoming season,” Tony Clark, executive director of the players union, said in a statement.
Bolstered by their antitrust exemption, MLB owners have long been able to keep pay below minimum wage and avoid paying players in the offseason, forcing many middling minor leaguers to work second jobs. MLB overhauled the minors before the 2021 season, cutting 40 affiliated teams but raising salaries, improving travel and enforcing more stringent requirements for facilities. Still, most minor leaguers found themselves making less than $15,000 per season, according to the group Advocates for Minor Leaguers, a figure that undermines MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s recent attempt to “reject the premise” that minor leaguers do not make a living wage.
Exactly what Manfred and MLB will do now remains to be seen. The league doesn’t exactly have a history of acquiescing to MLBPA requests, so voluntary recognizing the union right away would qualify as a surprise. If MLB does not recognize the union voluntarily, minor leaguers will hold an official election. If they vote to unionize with the MLBPA as their bargaining representative, the National Labor Relations Board will force the league and its owners to recognize the union, though how long that could take remains unclear, too.
But at this point, whenever it comes, a minor league players union would be arriving sooner than expected. Not a half decade ago, the whole thing would have been unthinkable, so entrenched were the ways of player development and the mind-set that speaking out would mark the end of a player’s career.
Yet thanks in large part to groups such as Advocates for Minor Leaguers — a organization subsumed by the MLBPA as part of a consolidation of power ahead of unionization — the definition of “acceptable” for minor league players changed as quickly and smoothly as a Trea Turner slide.
Advocacy led to increased media attention on the unique circumstances under which minor league players operate. Lawsuits against MLB owners alleging wage violations and other antitrust missteps have pushed the league’s long-standing exemption into sudden scrutiny. The result will likely be a swift and sudden shift in the way MLB approaches its player development system, though unionization remains a complicated proposition.
Among the questions the MLBPA will face if the union becomes official is whether that bargaining entity can represent two groups (major and minor leaguers) whose interests may occasionally be in opposition. Put in more familiar terms, if one agent has multiple players on one team and negotiates with an owner for as much as that owner can possibly pay one player, that deal could change the equation for another player on the same team. If the same agent represents another player, he may not be able to get as much for that player as he would have if he hadn’t milked the owners for all they were worth for the first player.
The analogy isn’t perfect, of course, but people familiar with MLB’s bargaining process have expressed skepticism that the MLBPA will be able to represent both groups successfully. Owners have a set amount of money they are willing to spend. Will bargaining for the best deal for major league players come at the expense of the best possible deal for minor leaguers, or vice versa? The question, which may be premature, will be difficult to answer. But from the perspective of a group of players who have never had bargaining rights of any kind, that question will likely be a welcome one.